the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘gender

The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum comes out on June 8th from Erewhon Books. I received an ARC from the publisher.

You know how some books give you #allthefeels?

 

The Unraveling gave me #allthethoughts in the best possible way.

 

At its heart, this novel is a coming of age/stumble into becoming an adult story. But everywhere else, it’s a giant beautiful thought experiment. Lots of science fiction and fantasy are thought experiments, and that’s what makes them so fun! 

 

Fair warning though, getting into The Unraveling might feel like more work than fun.  During the first few chapters I was on the strugglebus – who are all these people? What do all these terms mean? What the heck does doublebodied mean?  For about 80 pages I was just as lost as I was intrigued (not unlike an Iain M. Banks Culture book, now that I think about it). 

 

With zero introduction or infodumping, the narrative starts when the action starts, with a bustling family of many, many parents getting their only child, Fift, ready for the most important event of zir life. What made more sense much later was how nervous some of Fift’s parents were.  #NotASpoiler – Fift does just fine.  Well, at least at first. 

 

In my opinion, the most important things about The Unraveling, the things that kept me reading and kept me thinking, had nothing to do with the plot. This  book had so many ideas and social concepts that I have never seen  before, so many “why not?”’s that I’d not thought of before, so many “what if’s”, so much that was new to me!   Could be none of what’s in this book is new, but I doubt it.

 

What were all those why nots, and what ifs?  Let me tell you all about them! 

 

The BIG THING in The Unraveling is how gender is handled. The two genders are Staid (pronouns: ze, zir, zem) and Vail (pronouns: ve, vir, vem).  For someone who has spent the literal last 40 years seeing she/he in stories, it took me a long time to get used to the pronouns. Ok, but here’s the cool thing – gender in this book has absolutely nothing to do with your plumbing, because why not?  I did not expect it to, but this worked really well for me!

 

Staids are expected to be “the still center” with lives focused around intellectual studies, and Vails are pushed towards physical and emotive pursuits (I am grossly simplifying). Marriages are of  typically of many adults of mixed genders, with the one major rule being that Staids do not share The Long Conversation with Vails, and Vails do not share their mat fights or other aggressively physical activities with Staids. The gender expectations are pretty strict, which was funny and fascinating.

 

Thanks to way-in-the-future-science, people can have whatever biology, plumbing, and body modifications they want whenever they want, customized however they want, allowing anyone to look any way they please, and to be a mother or a father with anyone they want.  (and the science part doesn’t really matter, because this isn’t a story about how the science works. It’s a story about how people work) I thought that was all pretty damn cool, even though it did take me a good 200 pages for my brain to stop asking “yeah, but is this character a boy or a girl?”, because not only didn’t it matter if someone was a boy or a girl, this world doesn’t even have a concept of that. It’s perfectly fine to ask someone if they are a Staid or a Vail, and you’d typically be able to tell by their social behavior, but it would never occur to someone in this world to ask if someone was a boy or a girl, they don’t have the vocabulary for that and they don’t have a concept of that.

 

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

published in 1969

where I got it: purchased new

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I was intimidated to read this book. I doubted my ability to “get it”. What if I read and said “ok, that’s nice”? What if I didn’t understand the author’s intent? Endless doubts and what if’s. At my local book club a few months ago, instead of having us all read the same book, the club organizer put a stack of Hugo winners on the table and told us all to pick one.  I grabbed The Left Hand of Darkness off the table.  Doubt can go screw itself.

 

The big idea in The Left Hand of Darkness is how would culture and society be different if there was no gender? Unique among the planets that support human life, the people of Gethen have no fixed gender – they are neither male nor female, and have the ability to both father a child and give birth to a child. These people have never heard the phrase “traditional gender roles” and sexism and gender bias don’t exist in their culture. In their language, the pronouns “he” and “his”, simply mean “person”, and titles and offices that sound male to our ears are inclusive. This book is full of “he” and “his”, but there is only one male character in this book.

 

Genly Ai, Envoy of the Ekumen, has travelled to Gethen to invite the planet to become a part of the Ekumen, which is an interstellar trade federation of sorts.  He has now been residing in the kingdom of Karhide for over a year, and he will stay until the planetary leaders voice their wish to join the Ekumen, or until they tell him to go away (them killing him might also happen). Genly is in some ways incredibly patient, but in other ways impatient.  Not only does he not in anyway understand the local politics, but he also struggles with the idea that his hosts are not men and not women, but potentially either, and always showing traits of both femininity and masculinity, often at the same time.  In return, they view him as a sexual deviant, a genetic freak.

 

Gethen isn’t just a planet of no fixed gender, it’s also a planet that is actively trying to kill you.  Nicknamed “Winter”,  this is a place of never ending ice and snow, with a narrow band near the equator that can support life. No large mammals, no birds, no apex predators.  LeGuin does magic with how the planet shapes the society and culture of the Gethenians – no birds to be curious about means no interest in airplanes,  no large animals to eat means many meals and snacks during the day and strict rules of socializing that revolve around eating. On a planet where frostbite can kill, hospitality towards the stranger is the norm. On a planet where the populace appears to have no fear or distrust of the “other”, there are plenty of arguments, but there has never been an all out war between Karhide and their bureaucratic neighboring country Orgoreyn. Sprinkled through the novel are interim short chapters that include both local folklore and  helpful commentary from anthropologists who visited before Genly.

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The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner (a Riverside novel)

published in 2006

where I got it: purchased new

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Fifteen to twenty years after the events of Swordspoint: Alec is now the Duke Tremontaine, Richard St. Vier is nowhere to be found, and old grudges are still burning. But on the bright side, Riverside is slightly safer.

 

Seemingly out of the blue, Duke Tremontaine sends for his niece Katherine. She is to live with him for six months, and have no contact with her mother and brothers during that time.

 

Katherine, raised at her family’s country estate, is expectedly naive. And why she know anything about the outside world? She’s been raised as a young lady of quality, given the tools she needs to secure a proper marriage. Titles and marriages however, do not guarantee financial stability, and Katherine spends much of her time identifying what can be sold for cash and hemming her own clothing.   Even so, she still dreams of visiting the city, having a season full of lace and dresses and balls and then getting married to someone who loves her. This is what she’s been raised to expect and look forward to because no one has told her otherwise.

 

Your assumptions? I see them. Observe, as Ellen Kushner smashes them into itty bitty pieces.

 

When Katherine arrives at the Duke’s home, she finds only men’s clothing waiting for her,  her uncle’s strange, strange friends, and daily fencing lessons.  Indeed, there is a reason Tremontaine is known as The Mad Duke.  Within a week of arriving in the city, Katherine realizes fencing lessons aren’t that terrible; befriends Artemesia Fitz-Levi , the daughter of a well placed family; and learns that tromping around town in men’s clothes comes with social consequences. Within a month, she’s learned to ignore the names people call her, been befriended by the Duke’s young valet Marcus, learned something is very fishy with Artemesia’s cousin Lucius Perry who seems to have a secret life, and that Duke Tremontaine is much more than the local libertine, when it comes to subverting expectations.

 

Thus begins Katherine’s 6 month whirlwind tour of how the world really works, leave your innocence at the door, thank you very much.

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Am I a traitor to my gender?

Congrats to Connie Willis for winning the Hugo. She’s a “new to me” author, and I have her Doomsday Book at home but haven’t had the chance to pick it up yet.

if you are easily offended, you may want to skip this post. seriously, dangerous waters are ahead. to the point where I’m tempted to leave this up for 24 hours, and then take it down and deny it ever existed.

I’m not kidding, you might be really offended. don’t say I didn’t warn you.

It seems like only yesterday I was reading blog posts left and right about how we don’t have enough female scifi and fantasy authors. We don’t have enough women editing, writing, or winning awards for scifi and fantasy, and that’s a travesty. There are scifi/fantasy reading clubs and challenges that focus on female writers, and discussions that go round and round nearly into their own Klein bottles about how SF/F fans are obligated to read female authors or books with strong female protagonists.

you know what? it is a tragedy that women historically haven’t had the opportunities that men have. hate to say it, but that’s been going on for a really, really, really, really long time. We are not the first generation to be talking about gender (in)equality. I’m thankful to the strong willed women who paved the way for me to vote, have a career, have family planning options, to have the same rights as anyone else to pursue a life of happyness. I ain’t knockin’ it. I’m just on a soapbox is all. If we were the first generation to be having this discussion, I hope I’d be one of those suffragettes.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.